Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu

Eleventh Dialogue

Machiavelli: In Spirit of the Laws, you quite rightly remarked that the word "liberty" is one to which one attaches many diverse meanings. One says that in your work one can read the following proposition: "Liberty is the right to do what the laws permit."[1] I can easily accommodate myself to this definition, which I find to be just, and I can assure you that my laws would only permit what is necessary. You will see the spirit in which this is meant. How would you like to begin?

Montesquieu: I would not be sorry to see how you would defend yourself with respect to the press.

Machiavelli: You indeed place your finger on the most delicate part of my task. The system that I conceive is as vast as it is numerous in its applications. Fortunately, here I would have a free hand; I could cut and slice in full security and without involving hardly any recriminations.

Montesquieu: Why is this?

Machiavelli : Because in the majority of parliamentary countries, the press has the talent of making itself hated, because it is always in the service of violent, egotistical and exclusive passions; because it disparages fixed opinions, because it is venal, because it is unjust, because it is without generosity or patriotism; finally and especially, because you will never make the great masses of the people understand what purpose it serves.

Montesquieu: Oh! If you seek complaints about the press, it would be easy to accumulate them. But if you ask what purpose it serves, that's another thing. It quite simply hinders arbitrariness in the exercise of power; it forces one to govern constitutionally; it constrains the trustees of public authority to honesty, modesty and respect for oneself and others. Finally, to summarize it all in a phrase, the press gives to anyone who is oppressed the means of complaining and being heard. One can forgive much of an institution that -- despite so much abuse -- necessarily renders so many services.

Machiavelli: Yes, I know this appeal, but try to make it understood by the masses, if you can; count those who are interested in the fate of the press and you will see.

Montesquieu: For this reason it would be better if you move on to the practical means of muzzling it (I believe that is the right word).

Machiavelli: This is indeed the right word, but it is not only journalism that I intend to curb.

Montesquieu: It is printing itself.

Machiavelli: You begin to use irony.

Montesquieu: In a moment you will take it away from me because you will chain the press in all its forms.

Machiavelli: One cannot find weapons against playfulness when its character is so witty [spirituel]; but you will understand marvelously well that it would not be worth the difficulty of escaping from journalistic attacks if one still had to remain exposed to those of the book.

Montesquieu: So, let us begin with journalism.

Machiavelli: If I would contrive to purely and simply suppress the newspapers, I would very imprudently antagonize the public's sensibility, which is always a dangerous thing to brave; I would proceed by a series of provisions that would appear to be simple measures of foresight and policing.

I would decree that, in the future, no newspaper could be founded without the authorization of the government; right there the development of the evil would be stopped, because you can easily imagine that the newspapers that would be authorized would only be organs devoted to the government.

Montesquieu: But since you enter into all the details, please permit me to say that the spirit of a newspaper changes with changes among its editors. How would you set aside an editorial group hostile to your power?

Machiavelli: The objection is quite weak because, in the final analysis, I would not -- if possible -- authorize the publication of any new paper; but I have other plans, as you will see. You ask me how I would neutralize a hostile group of editors. In truth, in the simplest ways possible. I would add that the government's authorization is necessary for all changes among the editors in chief or managers of the newspaper.

Montesquieu: But the older newspapers, which remain enemies of your government and whose editors have not changed, will speak of this.

Machiavelli: Oh, but wait: I would strike all current and future newspapers with fiscal measures that would jam up all the publicity enterprises as appropriate; I would subject the political papers to what today you call the seal and the surety bond. The industry of the press would soon be so expensive, thanks to the elevation of taxes, that one will only indulge in it hesitantly.

Montesquieu: The remedy is insufficient because the political parties have no regard for money.

Machiavelli: Be calm: I have what will shut their mouths; here come the repressive measures. There are States in Europe where one refers to a jury one's knowledge of offenses committed by the press. I do not know a more deplorable measure than this, because it can agitate public opinion with respect to the least nonsense written by a journalist. Offenses committed by the press have such an elastic character -- the writer can disguise his attacks in such varied and subtle forms -- that it is not even possible to refer the knowledge of such offenses to the courts. The courts will always remain armed -- this goes without saying -- but the repressive everyday weapons must be in the hands of the administration.

Montesquieu: Thus there would be offenses that would not be adjudicated by the courts or, rather, you would strike with both hands: the hand of justice and the hand of the administration?

Machiavelli: Great evil! That is what comes from solicitude for several bad and malicious journalists who expect to attack all, to disparage all; who behave towards the government like the bandits whose muskets encounter voyagers along their routes. They constantly place themselves outside the law. So what if one outlaws them a little?

Montesquieu: Thus, would your strictness fall upon them alone?

Machiavelli: I would not limit myself to them, because such people are like the heads of the Hydra of Lerne; when one cuts off 10, 50 return. It would principally be the newspapers, as publicity enterprises, that I would attack. I would simply speak to them in a language such as this: "I could have suppressed you all, but I did not; I could still do so, I have left you alive, but it goes without saying that this is conditional, provided you do not hinder my progress or discredit my power. I do not want to have to put you on trial all the time, nor to ceaselessly amend the laws so as to repress your infractions; I can no longer have an army of censors tasked with examining tonight what you will publish tomorrow. You have pens, write; but remember this well: I reserve for myself and my agents the right to judge when and if I am attacked. A matter of subtleties. When you attack me, I will feel it and you will also feel it; in such cases, I will take justice into my own hands, not right away, because I want to put some thought into it; I will warn you once, twice; upon the third time, I will suppress you."

Montesquieu: I see with astonishment that it is not exactly the journalist who would be struck by your system, but the newspaper, the ruin of which involves that of the interests that are grouped around it.

Machiavelli: Let them re-group elsewhere; one cannot concern oneself with such things. Thus would my administration strike, without prejudice, of course, for the condemnations pronounced by the courts. Two condemnations in one year would incontestably cause the suppression of the newspaper. I would not stop there; I would say to the newspapers in a decree or law: "Reduced to the narrowest circumspection in what concerns you, do not hope to agitate public opinion through commentaries on the debates in my chambers; I forbid you from making report about them, I even forbid you from reporting on judicial debates about matters concerning the press. No longer count on impressing the public's mind with so-called news that comes from abroad; I will punish false news with criminal punishments, whether they are published in good or bad faith."

Montesquieu: This appears to be a little harsh, because, finally, the newspapers -- no longer being able to engage in political appreciation without running the greatest risks -- would only be able to survive by [publishing] the news. But when a newspaper did publish some news, it appears to me that it would be quite difficult for it to claim veracity, because most often it could not guarantee it, and when it could be morally sure of the truth, it would lack the material proof.

Machiavelli: One would think twice before troubling public opinion: this is what would be necessary.

Montesquieu: But there's something else. If one could no longer fight you with newspapers published at home, one could fight you with newspapers published abroad. All the dissatisfaction, all the hatred would be written upon the doors of your kingdom; one would throw beyond the borders the inflammatory newspapers and writings.

Machiavelli: Oh! Here you touch upon a point that I count on regulating in the most rigorous manner, because the foreign press is indeed very dangerous.[2] First of all, any introduction or circulation of unauthorized newspapers or writings in the kingdom would be punished by imprisonment, and the penalty would be sufficiently severe to remove the desire to do it.[3] Finally, all of my subjects who have been convicted of having written against the government while [living] abroad will, upon their return to the kingdom, be sought out and punished. It is a real indignity to write against one's government from abroad.

Montesquieu: This depends. But the foreign press would speak of it.

Machiavelli: You think so? Let us suppose that I rule over a great kingdom. The small States that border my frontiers would be trembling, I swear to you. I would make them pass laws that would prosecute their own nationals in case of attacks upon my government through the press or otherwise.

Montesquieu: I see that I was right to say in Spirit of the Laws that the frontiers of a despot would be ravaged. It would necessary that civilization does not penetrate them [from outside]. I am sure that your subjects would not know their own history. As in the image presented by Benjamin Constant,[4] you would make your kingdom an island on which one would be ignorant of what was taking place in Europe and your capital would be another island, on which one would be ignorant of what was taking place in the provinces.

Machiavelli: I would not want my kingdom agitated by the noise that comes from abroad. How does foreign news arrive? Through a small number of agencies that centralize the information that is transmitted to them from the four corners of the globe. So, one would have to be able to bribe these agencies and, from then on, they would only provide news that was controlled by the government.

Montesquieu: Very good. You can move on now to the policing of books.

Machiavelli: This subject preoccupies me less, because in an era in which journalism has been so prodigiously extended, one hardly ever reads books. Nevertheless, I do not intend to leave the door open for them. In the first place, I would obligate those who would want to pursue the professions of printer, publisher or bookseller to be provided with a license, that is to say, an authorization that the government could always revoke, either directly or through legal decisions.

Montesquieu: But then these businesses would be kinds of public functionaries. The instruments of thought would become the instruments of power!

Machiavelli: You would not complain, I imagine, because things were the same in your time, under parliamentary rule; one must conserve the old usages when they are good. I would return to fiscal measures; I would extend to books the seals that were to be placed on newspapers or, rather, I would impose the weight of the seal upon the books that were not of a certain number of pages. For example, a book that was not two hundred, three hundred pages long would not be a book, but only a pamphlet. I believe that you will see perfectly the advantage of such an arrangement: on one side, through the use of taxes, I would rarefy the cloud of short writings that are like journalistic annexes; on the other, I would force those who want to avoid the seal to devote themselves to long and expensive compositions that would hardly sell or would only be read with difficulty. Today, there are only a few poor devils who have the conscience to make books; they would renounce them. The bureau of internal revenue would discourage literary vanity, and penal law would disarm the printer itself, because I would make the publisher and the printer criminally responsible for the contents of the books they publish. It would be necessary that, if there were writers who dared to write books against the government, they could not find anyone to print them. The effects of this salutary intimidation would indirectly re-establish a censorship that the government could not exercise on its own,[5] because of the discredit into which this preventive measure has fallen. Before bringing new works to light, the printers and publishers would consult, they would inform each other, they would only produce the books that were demanded of them. In this manner, the government would always be informed in a useful fashion of the publications that were being prepared against it; it would preemptively seize them when it judged this to be appropriate and it would refer their authors to the courts.

Montesquieu: You told me that you would not touch civil rights. You do not appear to realize that it would be [both] liberty and industry that you would strike through such legislation; the right to property would find itself implicated, and it would pass away in its turn.[6]

Machiavelli: These are [mere] words.

Montesquieu: Then I would think you are now done with the press.

Machiavelli: Oh, not so!

Montesquieu: What remains?

Montesquieu: The other half of my task.

[1] Author's note: Spirit of the Laws, Book XI, Chapter III. [Translator's note: "It is true that in democracies the people seem to act as they please; but political liberty does not consist in an unlimited freedom. In governments, that is, in societies directed by laws, liberty can consist only in the power of doing what we ought to will, and in not being constrained to do what we ought not to will. We must have continually present to our minds the difference between independence and liberty. Liberty is a right of doing whatever the laws permit, and if a citizen could do what they forbid he would be no longer possessed of liberty, because all his fellow-citizens would have the same power."]

[2] It is certainly worth noting that, before writing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (which used Maurice Joly's book as source material), the Russian political-police agent Matvei Golovinski wrote pro-Czarist articles for the French newspaper Le Figaro.

[3] Not really. Maurice Joly -- the very writer of these lines -- was not deterred from writing this very book, which is highly critical of the French government, published abroad and smuggled into France. July was eventually identified as the book's author and was sentenced to 15 months in jail. Upon his release, he continued to write and get published politically controversial works. See also the following comment in Book II, Chapter VI, of Victor Hugo's Napoleon the Little: "The book I am now writing will, therefore, be tried in France, and its author duly convicted; this I expect, and I confine myself to apprising all those individuals calling themselves magistrates, who, in black and red gowns, shall concoct the thing that, sentence to any fine whatever being well and duly pronounced against me, nothing will equal my disdain for the judgment, but my contempt for the judges."

[4] Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) was a liberal Swiss writer and politician who was active in the French Revolution.

[5] A remarkably prescient insight. See Guy Debord's remarks on "financial censorship" in his letter to Patrick Straram dated 31 October 1960 and in his 1988 book Comments on the Society of the Spectacle.

[6] See Victor Hugo's Napoleon the Little, Book II, Chapter V: "Marvelous identity of principles: freedom suppressed is property destroyed."

(Translated from the French by NOT BORED! December 2007. Footnotes by the translator, except as noted.)

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